‘Sold’: the movie that’s launching a global fight against child sex trafficking

12-year-old Lakshmi en route to an Indian brothel, unbeknownst to her. (Credit: Sold)

Move over documentaries – Sold is making a strong case for feature films as tools for advocacy.

Based on a novel by Patricia McCormick, Sold is a heartbreaking film about a 12-year-old Nepali girl who finds herself trapped in the horrors of child sex trafficking. Since its initial theatrical release in April, Sold has evolved into a global campaign with partners that include Save the Children, World Vision, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Art of Living Foundation and others.

Their own campaign #TaughtNotTrafficked with Childreach International is raising funds to build 300 classrooms in Nepal in an effort to keep kids in school, lowering their chances of being trafficked. Additionally, screenings of Sold support vocational training and PTSD therapy for survivors as well as initiatives to safeguard children of victims from being trafficked themselves.

Academy- and Emmy-award-winning director Jeffrey Brown and producer Jane Charles spoke with Humanosphere about how Sold has influenced them and millions of others to fight against child trafficking. The film is also produced by Emma Thompson and stars Niyar Saikia as well as Gillian Anderson and David Arquette in nominal roles.

Director Jeffrey Brown

Director Jeffrey Brown

What led you to the Sold project?

Jeffrey: My dad is a pediatric epidemiologist. He worked with CARE, UNESCO and Save the Children, mainly in a lot of refugee camps in war-torn countries, helping very vulnerable kids have a chance to live despite their conditions. He’s been my lifelong hero, and I’d always wanted to make a film to help vulnerable children in the way that he helped them globally. When I read Sold, the novel, I felt like my prayer had been answered, so I literally optioned the book the next day, and that was almost 10 years ago.

Jane: Then [Jeffrey] called me and said, “You really need to read this book. It’s amazing.” When I read the book and I said, “Whatever it takes to get this made, I am on board.”

Can you describe some of the things you saw while preparing for the film?

Jeffrey: We spent a lot of time taking everyone through red light areas in India and had a lot of conversations with survivors, sex workers, brothel owners and investigators. I also went to a border crossing and watched young survivors intercept six girls in half a day who were being trafficked from Nepal into India. This was before the earthquake. It’s estimated that trafficking has gone up 300 percent in Nepal since the earthquake. A lot of the kids that we met were raped 10-20 times a day, seven days a week, sometimes for years before they were rescued. Sometimes they weren’t rescued; sometimes they were discarded because they had HIV or AIDS. I saw a 12-year-old nursing a one-and-a-half year old. These kinds of things should not be happening in the world. The more I learned, the more angry I got and the more determined I was to use my film to do real things. We’re doing a lot of real things.

Jane Charles, producer of Sold and co-founder of StolenYouth, a Seattle anti-trafficking nonprofit

Jane Charles, producer of Sold and co-founder of StolenYouth, a Seattle anti-trafficking nonprofit

Most advocacy films take a traditional documentary approach, but Sold did not. What do you think makes a feature film a better “call to action”?

Jane: Documentaries are seen by a number of people, but we wanted to make sure that millions of people around the world would see this film, because it’s not an easy subject to hear about. To us, because we’ve been doing this for nine years, we live and breathe this. But this is still a very new issue to some people. It’s a $150 billion illegal crime, second only to the drug industry, and it’s growing at such a rate that in order to stop it, we have to work together to create change. Like Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, says, these are all of our children. But I believe in the power of story to help change the world.

Did you envision a campaign of this scale from the beginning?

Jane: We started out wanting a film that would create a lot of awareness. And that really was our goal. What we found right away, is that as soon as people saw the film, they want to know, “What can I do?” So we immediately had to have some programs ready.

Jeffrey: I think we did envision this campaign, but we didn’t know all of the permutations of it. We knew we wanted to help kids, spread awareness about this issue and use our film as a fundraiser. We didn’t know that we’d be partnered with about 20 different organizations, all of which are now using the film to fund their own initiatives.

How do you measure the success of the film in raising awareness and mobilizing change?

Jane: Our goal all along was to have as much impact as possible. What we’re excited about is that a lot of people who see the film find their own way. They use the film to raise funds for their own organization, or they volunteer in another organization, or they start signing petitions to change bills. It really has mobilized people to do something about the issue, so it’s on its way to doing a lot of the things we hoped it would.

Jeffrey: That’s also why we made two versions of the film: One, which is in theaters now, is unrated and most likely would be rated R in the U.S., because it’s not a graphic film, but it’s pretty intense viscerally. We also created a PG-13 version specifically to get it into schools, churches and corporations. Now, we’ve been in 30 cities, with hundreds of screenings all over the country, and many of them are sold out because they’re being organized by amazing groups on a grassroots level. We are also raising funds to translate it into Hindi and Nepali to get it into schools in those countries. So I guess I would say I’m really pleased, but it’s been a long, slower road than I imagined. But it’s also getting more traction now than I ever imagined as well.

What was behind the decision to release Sold through a book-your-own-screening platform like Tugg?

Jane: We did a regular theatrical run first in April and then an extended one on Tugg, because when you have 100, 200 or 500 people in a room, the energy that’s created brings together community in way that allows people to really share and talk and ask questions about the issue. So we have a Q & A video that goes along with the film, and we also encourage whoever’s hosting it to request an extra half hour in the theater, so that they can bring in a panel of speakers to talk about the issue and let people ask questions.

Are advocacy films like Sold something you hope to continue to pursue as filmmakers?

Jeffrey: Absolutely. I can’t really imagine doing anything but films that make change at this point. One of the things I’m looking at now is the issue of orphans. There are over 150 million orphans in the world and they are very vulnerable to human trafficking. So, I’m looking at a couple of books. One of them is a comedy. It’d be fun to do something that has a spiritual component like Sold, but is lighter also, so that people will more easily go see the film.

Any final thoughts?

Jane: Internationally and in the United States in order to hit this on every level, I think most of the stakeholders involved understand that we have to be involved with governments, nonprofits, businesses and communities. Until every level actually works together in a coalition-type style, nothing will happen.

Jeffrey: There’s a lot more that we all need to do to address this global horror and human rights issue. The good news is a lot more people are getting involved in fighting trafficking. I think ultimately it’s going to take a lot more commitment, a lot more people and a lot more resources being dedicated toward this issue to make change. And it will.

To request a screening of Sold and learn more about how to fight child trafficking, visit soldthemovie.com.

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.